Why Angola had to freeze the personal assets of Africa’s richest woman

Isabel dos Santos in 2017.
Isabel dos Santos in 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville
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When an Angolan court froze the assets of Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman it was widely seen as the strongest signal the country’s president, Joao Lourenço’s is intent on cracking down on ending corruption and decades of crony capitalism in the country.

But for Isabel dos Santos, the 46-year-old daughter of former Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santos the move is part of a concerted campaign to discredit what she often describes to journalists as the self-made success and hard work which made her a billionaire.

Last month, the Angolan court froze the personal bank accounts of dos Santos, her Congolese-born husband Sindika Dokolo and Mario da Silva, chairman of Banco de Fomento Angola, in Angola as well as their stakes in nine Angolan firms—Unitel, Angola’s telecommunications giant, BFA, and smaller ventures including the Candado supermarket chain, a cinema and a mall for owing the state over $1 billion.

Dos Santos, who has long attributed her wealth to hard work, smart investments and business savvy, dismissed the state’s actions as a “politically motivated witch hunt.” One aimed at tarnishing her father’s legacy and the dos Santos name. Her brother, José Filomeno dos Santos, 42, the former chair of the Angola’s sovereign wealth fund, is on trial for allegedly transferring $500 million out of Angola illegally. Her half-sister, Welwitschia, was suspended from parliament for “unjust enrichment.”

Their father, José Eduardo dos Santos, was president of the oil and diamond-rich Angola for 38 years. Just before his last year in office, Jose appointed Isabel head of Angola’s state-owned oil firm, Sonangol EP. When Lourenço succeeded him in 2017, the new president fired her from the post.

Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos waves as he leaves Sao Bento Palace after a meeting with Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates in Lisbon March 11, 2009. Angolan state-owned oil company Sonangol and Portugal's state-run bank Caixa Geral de Depositos (CGD) on Wednesday signed an agreement to invest $500 million each in a new bank to finance infrastructure projects in Angola.
former Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santo.
Image: Reuters/Hugo Correia

“My country’s become unfortunate, where the fight for corruption is feeding a political agenda which is vengeance,” dos Santos told Quartz Africa in an interview in October. Naturally, the current government has disputed this.

She said she was hired to chair Sonangol because of her business expertise. “I’m the country’s largest private employer,” she said. Isabel dos Santos was speaking on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia and although the court decision had not been made at the time, there were strong indications of what was coming.

Even before any legal battles, Dos Santos has always protested her legit business credibility. “I’ve successfully built over ten businesses and I’m leading brands from industry to retail to cinema, and I built them. These are not businesses that are state owned businesses.”

But not many in Angola agree on that point. “The two roots of [Isabel’s] fortune are diamonds and Unitel and they were given to her by her father,” says legal analyst and Angola Research Network founder, Rui Verde.

Joao Lourenco, MPLA candidate to the presidential elections waves to supporters, during a campaign rally in Viana, Luanda district, Angola, 25 March 2017.
Angolan president Joao Lourenço
Image: EPA/Joost De Raeymaeker

Numerous reports have shown how she ended up with stakes in lucrative Angolan companies while her father was president. A Forbes report and an ICIJ investigation revealed Ms dos Santos as one of the shareholders of Ascorp, the Angolan diamond monopoly controlled by Russian-Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev. Leviev and his partners, including Russian arms dealer Arkady Gaydamak, owned 24.5% of Ascorp. The Angolan government held 51%, and dos Santos through a Gibraltar investment company that she created with Tatiana Kukanova, her Russian-born mother, also owned a 24.5% stake. Their company was called Trans Africa Investment Services.

“But as the ‘blood diamond’ business attracted international scrutiny in the middle of the 2000s, Dos Santos transferred to her mother total control of TAIS, now renamed Iaxonh Limited,” the Forbes report said.

In her late twenties, owing to a new decree from her father at the time, dos Santos got a 25% stake in Unitel, Angola’s biggest mobile phone company.

The investigations uncovered a pattern under Jose’s tenure of forging or facilitating partnerships between state ventures and his nuclear family.

Isabel dos Santos and her husband Sindika Dokolo in Portugal.
Isabel dos Santos and her husband Sindika Dokolo in Portugal.
Image: AP Photo/Paulo Duarte

Current allegations made by the Angolan attorney general include a 2006 deal involving Sonangol and Exem Energy BV, an entity owned by Isabel and her husband. According to independently obtained documents in the lawsuit, both parties—Sonangol and Exem—formed a partnership named Esperaza Holding to conduct oil businesses in Europe. Sonangol owned 60% of Esperaza while Exem owned 40%.

For the realization of the capital stock of Esperaza, Sonangol provided 100% of the capital, amounting to 193.5 million euros. Exem committed to return its corresponding 40% of the capital to Sonangol in the amount of 75 million euros, but has failed to do so since then. The government does acknowledge that just before leaving as chairman of Sonangol in 2017, dos Santos authorized Exem to return the money, but in kwanzas. The new board blocked the transfer of 112 million kwanza (AOA), which, with Angola’s recent currency devaluation corresponds to just 208,000 euros. Verde described the sleight of hand as “a financial engineering trick.”

Dos Santos has also claimed the asset freeze could affect the thousands of people her companies employ.

But Verde and other critics question the viability of these ventures if they are in need of constant capital injection and therefore not self-sufficient. “If the companies are working and efficiently managed, they don’t need capital inputs. “The company’s assets have not been frozen,” he said. “The company’s and personal properties are very different things.”

The lawsuit is expected to go to court in March when the new judicial year opens.

*The interview with Isabel dos Santos was conducted with Joe Penney, October 2019

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